Tear gas--harassing agent or toxic chemical weapon?

JAMA. 1989 Aug 4;262(5):660-3. doi: 10.1001/jama.262.5.660.


Tear gas has gained widespread acceptance as a means of controlling civilian crowds and subduing barricaded criminals. The most widely used forms of tear gas have been o-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile and omega-chloroacetophenone. Proponents of their use claim that, if used correctly, the noxious effects of exposure are transient and of no long-term consequences. The use of tear gas in recent situations of civil unrest, however, demonstrates that exposure to the weapon is difficult to control and indiscriminate, and the weapon is often not used correctly. Severe traumatic injury from exploding tear gas bombs as well as lethal toxic injury have been documented. Moreover, available toxicological data are deficient as to the potential of tear gas agents to cause long-term pulmonary, carcinogenic, and reproductive effects. Published and recent unpublished in vitro tests have shown o-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile to be both clastogenic and mutagenic. Sadly, the nature of its use renders analytic epidemiologic investigation of exposed persons difficult. In 1969, eighty countries voted to include tear gas agents among chemical weapons banned under the Geneva Protocol. There is an ongoing need for investigation into the full toxicological potential of tear gas chemicals and renewed debate on whether their use can be condoned under any circumstances.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Civil Disorders
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Humans
  • Korea
  • Tear Gases / adverse effects*
  • o-Chlorobenzylidenemalonitrile / adverse effects
  • o-Chlorobenzylidenemalonitrile / toxicity
  • omega-Chloroacetophenone / adverse effects
  • omega-Chloroacetophenone / toxicity


  • Tear Gases
  • o-Chlorobenzylidenemalonitrile
  • omega-Chloroacetophenone